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June 18, 2011

"Perverted Justice: Sex offender laws represent the triumph of outrage over reason"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article authored by Jacob Sullum in the July 2011 issue of Reason magazine. (As I noted in this prior post, the July 2011 issue of Reason magazine is the must-read of the summer because of a large collection of important articles by important authors discussing the important need to reform lots of important elements of our modern criminal justice systems.)  Here is how Sullum's piece gets started: 

“If we had been aware of his record,” says Maureen Kanka, “my daughter would be alive today.” She is referring, in a statement on the website of an anti-crime group she founded, to Jesse Timmendequas, a neighbor in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, who raped and murdered her 7-year-old daughter, Megan, in 1994.  Three months later, the state legislature enacted Megan’s Law, which created a publicly accessible registry of sex offenders.

“Without the registry,” says Shirley Turner, “he would still be alive today.”  She is referring, in a 2006 interview with Human Rights Watch, to her 24-year-old son, William Elliot.  He was murdered that year by a pedophile-hunting Canadian gunman who found his name and address in Maine’s online database of sex offenders.  Elliot’s crime: When he was 19, he had sex with his girlfriend, who was three weeks shy of 16, the age of consent in Maine.

The panic that followed Megan Kanka’s murder produced an alarm system that often fails to distinguish between dangerous predators like Timmendequas, who had a record of assaulting little girls, and nonviolent lawbreakers like Elliot, who posed no discernible threat to the general public.  They are all mixed together in the online registries of sex offenders that every state is required to maintain as a condition of receiving federal law enforcement funding — a mandate imposed by another Megan’s Law, enacted by Congress in 1996.

Registration only rarely leads to murder, but it routinely ruins relationships, triggers ostracism and harassment, and impedes education and employment.  These burdens are compounded by state and local laws that ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks, day care centers, and other locations where children congregate. Such restrictions, which often apply even if an offender’s crime had nothing to do with children, can be so extensive that entire cities are effectively off limits.  In Miami local residence restrictions have given rise to a colony of more than 70 sex offenders who live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge that crosses Biscayne Bay.

Some sex offenders, including nonviolent ones, will not live to see the underside of a bridge because they receive sentences that keep them behind bars until they die.  Two decades of ever-more-punitive legislation have produced sentencing rules so bizarre and byzantine that the punishment for possessing images of sexually abused children can be more severe than the punishment for sexually abusing them.  And even prisoners who complete their sentences may not go free, since the federal government and about half of the states have laws authorizing the indefinite civil commitment of sex offenders who would otherwise be released.

American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe.  This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety.  Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions.

June 18, 2011 at 01:00 PM | Permalink


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The sex offender laws registration laws need to be better focused. There's no doubt about that.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 18, 2011 2:33:24 PM

Sex Offender Laws don't need to be better focused as much as they need to be repealed. Knee Jerk laws made by Politician's looking to keep their jobs or get re-elected have the bad laws unconstitutional power transferred to other laws.

You let the government (Federal and/or State) get away with one unconstitutional law and they (the government) will do it again and again and again.

"It's better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" Backstone

Posted by: Book38 | Jun 18, 2011 3:48:34 PM

Sex Offender Laws and especially the Adam Walsh Act, supported by John Walsh (who adfmitted on Larry King's Show) that he was treated for "sex addiction" are all pieces of "s--t".

That our judges are too cowardly, or deeply misguided as to not find them unconstitutional speaks volumes as to our stupidity and deliberate blindness.

Posted by: albeed | Jun 18, 2011 6:12:01 PM

I am sorry. Slight correction. Not the "triumph of outrage over reason."

The "triumph of feminism over the productive male and the patriarchal family."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 18, 2011 7:41:36 PM

I really enjoy the great range of topics on this blog and the comments are both enlightening and hilarious at times. Thanks for maintaining it and constantly updating it with great food for thought. I hope in some way it'll help keep the focus on things like the topic addressed above and be a positive force for change in the long term. Keep up the good work it's appreciated.

Posted by: james | Jun 18, 2011 11:20:52 PM

Can it be that the great bugbear of our era--sex crimes--is finally becoming less scary? Can we now start to address these issues rationally, instead of like frightened, hysterical children? Will prosecutors start applying some common sense and proportionality to these cases?


Posted by: Anonymous | Jun 20, 2011 1:12:49 AM

A more serious review of the existing laws about sex offense must be done. Lawmakers should be bent on rectifying the ambiguities of such policies.

- student

Posted by: Avery | Aug 29, 2011 11:03:33 AM

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